Changing seasons: Hunting seasons, that is

Increasing hunter opportunity while maintaining hunt quality

Sept. 5, 2008

This article was written by Jim Heffelfinger, game specialist in the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Tucson region, and Brian Wakeling, the department’s big game management program supervisor. The article was originally published (abbreviated version) in the September-October 2008 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine.

“Changing Seasons: Hunting seasons, that is ”
by Jim Heffelfinger and Brian Wakeling

No one likes change. It is disruptive, different and scary. Psychologists define stress as a person’s physical and psychological response to change. So there you have it: Change = Stress.

But without change, things never get better. Hunter participation has been decreasing for decades, and wildlife conservation needs hunters. Hunters are not only important because they generate funding and volunteers to work on wildlife conservation projects, but because they provide political support for important legislative issues. They also remind others that wildlife is significant and that it positively affects one’s quality of life. Watching hunter participation wane provides inspiration for change.

In game management, we remain responsive to what is happening on the ground, yet we must think ahead to fulfill our duty as stewards of wildlife populations. “Managing Today for Wildlife Tomorrow” is more than a catchy slogan plastered on our trucks. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was built as a system by which hunters’ dollars are used to fund research, protect wildlife and habitat and help us plan future management based on what we’ve learned from past research and experience. The model remains relevant today because people value wildlife. No one else has agreed to pay the tab covered by hunters, anglers and recreational shooters since the model’s inception.

It is simple. To make this system of conservation thrive, we need more hunters. To get more hunters, we need more chances for people to hunt.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department convened a team of wildlife managers, field supervisors and game specialists in March 2007 to look for ways to increase Arizonans’ chances for hunting without negatively impacting wildlife populations. In June 2007, the team shared its findings at 11 public meetings statewide and on the department’s Web site. Public comments were encouraged and accepted by fax, e-mail and mail. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission acted on these findings, specifically our recommended hunt guidelines, during its August 2007 meeting.

These new hunt guidelines allow more people to go hunting, but because of the innovative ideas generated by the team, these structures often reduced the number of people afield at the same time. When it comes to preserving our hunting heritage and maintaining the most successful system of wildlife conservation in the world, the more hunter-conservationists we have participating, the brighter the future looks for wildlife.

We are going to highlight the significant changes adopted by the Commission in relation to deer seasons, elk, buffalo, fall javelina, fall turkey and tree squirrel seasons, and share the rationale the department used in making these recommendations. An abbreviated version of this article was published in the September–October issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine.

Deer Changes
Over the past two decades, deer populations generally have declined in numbers. Weather has not been favorable, as we’ve seen predominately dry winters and intervening summers of spotty rainfall. These dry conditions were not conducive to favorable habitat conditions. While deer populations declined, rural Arizona was changing as well. The public became increasingly excluded from more places as development continued to limit access. Restricted access was fueled by landowners’ fear of vandalism, littering and lack of respect for private property. As access to public lands became restricted, the gateways that remained open became more crowded. The cycle continued with other landowners restricting access, and soon our hunts became more crowded even though we had fewer hunters in the field than we did two decades ago. As some deer populations increase we may have no place to put more hunters.

When it came to revising deer seasons, we started with a blank calendar and built a structure that achieved our goals. We wanted to increase the number of people who can go hunting this fall and make it more enjoyable for those who are lucky enough to get drawn. Here are the results.

We created a series of seven-day deer hunts without overlapping season dates. This means the only deer hunters afield with you are those with the same tag that you have — there will not be hordes of whitetail hunters competing for space during your mule deer hunt and vice versa. Data showed that hunters took to the field an average of two to five days regardless of season length. In the past, a 10-day season allowed you to hunt a second weekend, but that second weekend (or your opening day) overlapped with another season. Hunters also have been complaining about juniors-only hunts coinciding with other hunts. This new season structure gives juniors their own season so parents can concentrate on their children’s experiences.

In southeastern Arizona, an additional early whitetail hunt was added to spread permits temporally and reduce hunter density. Now there are three early hunts plus a late-December hunt during the rut. The permits from last year’s two early hunts were distributed among three early hunts this year, reducing the number of hunters afield at one time. In units that can support more buck harvest, we are able to let more people go hunting and still have fewer hunters afield during the hunts. This change was not implemented in central Arizona to avoid elk season conflicts; plus, hunter crowding is less of an issue in that part of the state.

The new structure creates more weekends of hunts. Will more hunting days negatively affect deer populations? Think about this: With fewer people afield at one time, hunters may not feel as compelled to hunt the backcountry. A deer trying to hide on opening day may be better off with fewer hunters around for more weekends. Research has failed to demonstrate any decrease in deer population productivity due to increased disturbance.

Doing Away With Quality?
December white-tailed deer hunts are highly sought after because hunter densities are low and whitetails are more active during the breeding season. This combination yields the lucky tag holder an improved chance to selectively harvest older age-class animals. Why would the department change these seasons?

December white-tailed deer hunts were introduced during the 1980s when all deer were more abundant than they are now. We also had more tags than applicants. With the introduction of the late hunts, hunters could draw two tags and harvest two deer annually, if the second tag was a permit leftover from the draw. These late whitetail permits were regularly undersubscribed and available until their popularity developed. Even today, these December hunts enjoy high success with about half the hunters harvesting a buck. In comparison, only about one-fourth of hunters in earlier hunts harvest deer. So 50 hunters in December harvest the same number of deer as 100 hunters do in October or November. By adjusting permits into earlier time frames, we can afford more hunters with a chance to go hunting.

Why is this important? In the 2007 fall draw, 72,651 people applied for a deer tag and only 42,585 people received one. So 30,066 (41 percent) of people who wanted to hunt deer had to stay home and find something else to do with their families. To accommodate more hunters, permits were shifted from December hunts into early hunts. The difference in hunt success allowed us to let more people go hunting in the early seasons than would have been able to otherwise. Although a few hunts offer 100 percent chance of being drawn if you select these as your first choice on your application, there’s no getting around the fact that tens of thousands of Arizona deer hunters have to sit home each year.

Is the department going to manage for quantity and abandon quality deer hunts? No. We retained units in each region that are managed as alternative white-tailed or mule deer units. These populations are managed for an older age structure, higher hunt success and, in white-tailed deer units, enough December tags so that about 30 percent of the harvest in those units will be from that time frame. In those units, the number of December white-tailed deer tags has increased.

It’s not a quality vs. quantity deer management issue. It is an issue of providing a range of experiences Arizona hunters want. Let’s look at it this way; the department has many customers with many different demands. In the simplest terms, some customers are interested in fishing and some want to observe rare birds. But on closer scrutiny, some anglers prefer coldwater fishing, or perhaps a specific type of trout with specific tackle. Although we often lump all hunters in one user group, it is important to recognize they, too, have a variety of wants.

We can provide seasons for those hunters who just wish to go afield, while providing more conservative hunts in other areas for those who want to pursue a world-class animal. We can’t meet every hunter’s expectation in every unit, but we can provide enough diversity so that a hunter can select the hunt that meets his or her specific desire.

What About Archery?
Archery hunts are longer than most rifle hunts and the season timing is more advantageous. Yet, rifle hunters have higher hunt success because of the advantages of their equipment. But every time we need to reduce harvest, general season hunters end up with fewer permits and archers still have unlimited opportunity. Is this fair? How can we determine what is fair?

Years ago, we adopted a formula for elk that attempts to allocate permits among the different weapon-types so that harvest is consistent with demand for those types of hunting. To estimate expected demand and harvest, the formula uses five-year averages of first-choice applicants and five-year averages for hunt success. With those two data points, you can allocate permits fairly.

The number of first-choice applicants is 90,747 for general, muzzleloader or juniors-only deer hunts. The department sells an average of 23,073 over-the-counter archery deer tags a year. This yields a 20.3 percent demand for archery, which when coupled with average hunt success, helps us determine what slice of the pie is fair for archers. Yet this is not entirely clean because 53 percent of those who buy archery tags also apply for draw hunts. So if we look at the liberal end, 20 percent of the take is fair; or if we want to be conservative, 10 percent is fair.

Now let’s examine harvest. Archers are required to phone in their harvest, yet noncompliance is a persistent issue. So, we estimate harvest using a voluntary survey card that is mailed to hunters. Questionnaires are a consistent way to obtain precise estimates with similar bias.

Archery seasons can occur in one or more of three time frames: August–September, December or January. In those units where archery harvest exceeded 20 percent of the total take, the department recommended reduction of the archery harvest. In units where archery seasons included more than a single time frame, season length could be reduced (for example, eliminate the December season). However, in those units where seasons had already been reduced to a single time frame (game management unit 12A, August–September), further season length reductions seemed imprudent. The only other alternative was to limit entry through the draw.

In those units where archery deer harvest comprised less than 10 percent of the overall harvest in the unit, the department recommended increasing season length. Several units actually received longer archery seasons.

Archers now have the option of buying an over-the-counter tag and hunting in any open unit or applying for permits in specific units through the draw. If they apply through the draw, they may mix general, muzzleloader and archery choices on their application. If drawn, they may use their draw tag. They also may participate in any open over-the-counter season if they purchased an over-the-counter tag in addition to the draw tag. Pay attention: You cannot use an over-the-counter tag in an archery draw unit and you cannot harvest more than one deer in a calendar year.

Elk Changes

Relatively few changes occurred to the elk hunt guidelines compared with the deer. The most notable amendment was the addition of 400 permits for archery bull hunts during November. This was a new idea, similar to moving white-tailed deer permits out of December to provide greater numbers of tags. It was discussed for several years and will be implemented in fall 2008 for the first time. Currently, two units offer this season, and hunt success is generally in the high teens, whereas the early September archery bull hunts enjoy 35–45 percent hunt success.

Is there any demand for these later hunts? Are there hunters who would select these over the early hunts? During the draw, 351 of the 400 sold in the first and second choice round and there were no leftover tags, so there was enough interest in these opportunities. But it will take a couple years of monitoring to evaluate the demand. We examine the guidelines every two years, and future amendments are always possible.

Buffalo
Buffalo hunt management objectives are arguably either the easiest (Raymond Wildlife Area herd) or most difficult (House Rock Wildlife Area herd) to achieve. The Raymond herd is smaller and less likely to abandon the wildlife area, and has access to less rugged, remote country than does the House Rock herd. We are easily able to meet management objectives through harvest at Raymond; our difficulties begin at House Rock. Consequently, our efforts at innovation focused on the House Rock herd.

Current estimates place the House Rock herd at approaching 300 animals. The department has recommended a variety of fall hunts over the years, including short hunts, long hunts, multiple hunts and stratified hunts, all with a varying number of permits. Buffalo on House Rock have a tendency to abandon the gentle terrain in House Rock Valley to hide in the heavily forested wilderness area (which makes access and retrieval difficult at best) or the Grand Canyon National Park (where hunting is not allowed). Hunter harvest and success has not regulated population growth, yet conditions proved frustrating for those hunters with permits. The Commission has authorized as many as 60 fall permits, with as few as three buffalo being harvested.

Spring hunts have been more successful, but equally unpredictable. The buffalo seem to move into the valley in the spring and remain there all summer before moving back onto the Kaibab Plateau in the winter. Longer spring bull seasons are proving to be the most effective way to meet the demand for a fair chase hunt, while meeting reasonable expectations for harvest. Population management seasons seem to provide the most effective method by which to get hunters afield to harvest cows and yearlings, thereby reducing herd size. The population management seasons allow the department to rapidly respond to herd availability and provide the hunter with the best chance for success.

Fall Javelina Changes
Javelina is an under-used resource for Arizona hunters. They are the perfect big game animal for beginners, and even experts can learn from pursuing these interesting game animals. Javelina are fun to stalk and provide excellent training in the use of binoculars and primitive weapons for hunting. Although rumors abound regarding their quality as table fare, exercising a bit of creativity and ingenuity during processing (e.g., chorizo or sausage) or cooking (e.g., crock pot) can yield surprisingly favorable results.

Because a substantial number of permit were leftover in the spring draw (due at least in part to the on-again, off-again online draw), the department recommended offering a proportion of the permits from the spring during the fall hunting season. The department shifted 15 percent of spring permits into fall archery, handgun, archery and muzzleloader (HAM) and general seasons in 2006. As part of the overall changes in hunt structures, we combined all fall javelina tags from last year into juniors-only general permits in each unit. The season dates for these tags may coincide with a juniors-only deer season so that young hunters can apply for a deer tag in the same unit, giving them the option to pursue either species.

There are still a few muzzleloader and archery permits for juniors in Unit 39.

Fall Turkey Changes
Until 1991, fall turkey permits were issued over the counter, but declining turkey populations resulted in the issuance of fall permits through the draw. The department developed a protocol for adjusting permits that reflects the habitat quality and population status. Each turkey unit is evaluated annually during the hunt recommendation process, with the best turkey units ranking a score of A or B.

Yet turkeys are one of the big game species (like javelina) that the Commission has chosen to target for juniors opportunities. In 2007, there were 179 first-choice applicants for juniors-only seasons, and 806 juniors applied for fall turkey hunts in total (including non-juniors hunts). By offering this hunting experience, the department is optimistic that we will see an increase in the number of juniors participating in turkey hunts. Fall turkey hunts are open to either gobblers or hens, so these juniors hunts are scheduled for the most robust populations — the units that scored an A. These over-the-counter tags will be available from department offices only. A similar change was implemented for the spring hunt, with a wider variety of units from which juniors hunters may choose.

The legal method of take has been changed for the fall from a general season to a limited weapon shotgun shooting shot. There are many reasons for this change, but shotguns are probably the most effective firearm for taking a bird. Rifles encourage hunters to shoot at long ranges and many turkeys are shot in the body, which can be very damaging to your subsequent turkey dinner. Shotguns are effective at ranges to 50 yards with the right loads, and the best shot placement is the head. Finally, although hunter safety is very high (statistically it is safer to hunt than to play Ping-Pong), shotguns reduce the severity of hunting accidents tremendously.

Tree Squirrels Changes
Sometimes we get so excited about big game hunts designed for youth that we forget about the traditional entry-level positions and the fun these hunts generate. Rabbits and squirrels are an excellent chance to get young people in the field to hone their skills or to have a quiet day of conversation and fun with your teenager (out of text message range).

Small game species have high reproductive and mortality rates. This means they do not need as many restrictions and regulations to protect against over-harvest. Our tree squirrel season was relatively short for a species with such a high annual turnover rate. We realized that it could be extended to the end of the year to let families pursue the wily bushy-tail for about five more weeks and not impact the squirrel population at all.

The Abert’s squirrel is not native to portions of southern Arizona, including the Catalina and Pinaleno Mountains. The introduced Abert’s squirrel may be competing with the native squirrel species in the Catalina Mountains (Arizona gray squirrel) and the Pinaleno Mountains (endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel). Although it’s unclear whether any squirrels are truly arguing over pine cones in those mountains, protection of Abert’s squirrels in this situation is unnecessary. The seasons were changed in these units so that Abert’s squirrel may be pursued yearlong at Mt. Graham and during all but the summer months on the Catalinas; the daily bag limit of five still applies.

The Upshot
The implemented changes are put in place to make hunting easier and more accessible than it has ever been before. If we didn’t get it right, we are always glad to hear how we can improve it.

Change can be good, but it requires adjustment and evaluation. After monitoring these changes for a couple years, we will decide what works and what doesn’t. As we have done since the beginning of the wildlife management profession, we will discard what doesn’t work and retain and improve upon what does. Through it all, public input is a vital part of the process because the Arizona Game and Fish Department manages wildlife for all Arizonans, and the perpetuation of hunting is a cornerstone to our collective success. Together, our goal should be to do what is right for the resource and for the preservation and promotion of this highly successful system of wildlife conservation in which we participate.